Our Italy Travel Guide
Whether it’s your first time travelling to Italy or you’ve been there before, read our guide on the country’s history, etiquette, tipping culture, food, festivals and more.
At a glance
Shaped like a boot, Italy has is one of the most distinctive outlines of any country in the world. It's fitting for a country where La Bella Figura and La Dolce Vita are prevalent philosophies. The former is about the importance of the beautiful in everything - fashion, art, surroundings, design but also etiquette and attitude. And in terms of attitude, in a country where most people are passionate about most things, the idea of La Dolce Vita matters, it really does. Living a sweet life, the good life, is a unifying characteristic in a country where no two regions are alike.
They may not be alike, but each has riches to offer travellers, not least seductive landscapes, significant art and some pretty sensational food. Add them up and you have a country that seems to have it all - little wonder that travellers have eulogised about Italy ever since the days of the Grand Tour. The country's outstanding cultural legacy drew the first visitors - almost every walk in Rome will be in the footsteps of a Caesar or a great pope; and Tuscany alone has more classified historical monuments than most countries. This historical treasure trove continues to pull in tourists from all over the world. Florence for example is so dazzlingly rich in art and architecture that people have been known to suffer from Stendhal Syndrome (also known as Florence syndrome), which is an extreme reaction to overwhelmingly beautiful art or an overwhelming amount of art - a speeded up heartbeat, hallucinations, dizziness, confusion... all the symptoms experienced by 19th-century French author Stendhal on his first visit to Florence.
Italy does tend to have that effect, and not just because of its art masterpieces. Much of the natural beauty of the country inspires similar swooning. It's quite understandable. The northern border is a crown of spectacular mountain peaks, studded with mirror-bright glacial lakes. The Mediterranean Sea that almost surrounds the country stretches away in pleasing shades of aquamarine and the extensive coastline runs the full gamut between dramatic cliffs, secluded coves and wide swathes of sand. Tuscany is ridiculously scenic, as is green and wild Umbria, at the heart of the country. The south shimmers and simmers, not least because of the active volcanoes of Etna, Vesuvius and Stromboli. And Puglia, tucked into the heel of that boot, is downright spectacular, with ancient towns and sprawling olive groves, deserted beaches as well as a rugged coastline.
Add to this a seriously delicious and authentic cuisine, the friendliness of the people, the sunniness of many of the days, and it's no wonder visitors return time and time again.
Culture & etiquette
Italy is a welcoming country and Italians are friendly and courteous, and accustomed to interacting with visitors. But Italian society is a little more formal than its Northern European or English-speaking counterparts, and can be more sensitive to issues of respect. If you are polite and civil, you should encounter no problems, but steer clear of potentially sensitive subjects such as Mussolini, Berlusconi, political corruption or the role of the mafia in southern Italy.
Italians tend to be proud of their local city or region, identifying more strongly with their birthplace than with the country as a whole, so when in Rome, don't praise Venice, Naples or Florence too highly, and vice-versa. Tolerance is part of the doctrine of the Roman Catholic Church (which nonetheless preaches against homosexuality), and generally there is a strong liberal tradition, particularly in the north and in Rome.
Such a delectable cuisine demands a lot from its liquid accompaniment, but with an amazing variety, Italy doesn't disappoint.
Italy is renowned for its wines. With some one million vineyards spread across the country, it challenges France as the world's largest exporter and producer. Pinot Grigio is, of course, wildly popular, home and abroad, as is Chianti, a dry red produced in central Tuscany. But if you'd like to try a little something different, consider the Sicilian Nero d'Avola or Verdicchio, which has been grown in the March region since the 1300s.
Italians are kings of the cocktail, too; martinis originated from Liguria, and you can't escape the Negroni, a bitter sweet mix of Campari, gin and Red Martini, or sweet Bellinis in the streets of Venice. Or try a refreshing Aperol Spritz, which looks like an Italian susnset in a glass, the bitterness of the spirit balanced with prosecco and/or soda water. Liqueur lists are also extensive, with Amaro, Amaretto and limoncello - made from lemons and sipped from a frozen glass - among the most popular. Grappa is considered to be the best digestif and the varieties available are exhaustive and range from the smooth to the extremely rough.
Italian beer has less to shout about, though the common Italian lager brands including Peroni and Italian Moretti are likeable enough. A recent surge in microbreweries means there is an increasing variety of beers now available across Italy, often with a deeper, broader taste and higher alcohol percentage than the more popular lagers.
And then of course, there's coffee. Best enjoyed short, strong and black (simply, caffè), whilst leaning up against the counter of a Roman newsagent or on a terrace under a mid-morning sun. Other varieties - including cappuccino (a breakfast favourite and generally not consumed by Italians after 11am), caffè macchiato or caffè freddo (taken cold, during the summer) - are available, too. Drinking coffee is as Italian an experience as sailing the Amalfi coast or rambling the ruins of Rome.
Highlights of the cultural calendar include many traditional regional festivals, interspersed with international arts, music and sports events. Major events include:
Moveable (40 days before Easter: 4 March 2014; 17 February 2015) - Carnevale, countrywide. Hotel reservations for the major carnivals in Venice and Viareggio are often snapped up a year in advance, so book your holiday early. Oristano and Mamoiada on Sardinia and Acireale on Sicily are among the most colourful regional celebrations, the former two combining religious and pagan rituals, while festivities in Venice start two weeks early.
Early June - Regatta of the Ancient Maritime Republics, Pisa. Boat races on the Arno pitting the home city against Genoa, Venice and Amalfi.
Mid-June to mid-August - Festival de Caracalla, Rome. Opera, ballet and classical concerts amid the ruins of the Baths of Caracalla.
Mid-June to early September - Verona Opera, Arena di Verona. Summer season of operatic works in the city's spectacular 1st-century amphitheatre.
2 July - Festa della Madonna Bruna, Matera. Centuries-old feast and procession in honour of the city's patron brown virgin.
2 July and 16 August - Il Palio di Siena. The famous horse race around the Piazza del Campo takes place in two stages in which the 17 contrade (local neighbourhoods) compete. There are other events in the days leading up to each race (from 29 June and 13 August).
5 to 7 July - L'Ardia di San Costantino, Sedilo. Less well known than the Siena Palio, Sardinia's monumental horse race celebrates St Constantine's victory over Maxentious at the Mulvian Bridge in 312, where the saint is reported to have been inspired by a flaming cross.
July - Umbria Jazz. Eleven days of open-air concerts by international artists.
July and August - Torre del Lago Puccini Festival, Tuscany. An outdoor amphitheatre beside the lake is the setting for the Puccini programme, with other concerts and ballets around the town.
July and August - Macerata Opera Festival. Outdoor opera programme in the magnificent Sferisterio Arena, celebrating its 50th season in 2014.
First Sunday in August: La Quintana jousting festival, Ascoli Piceno. After a medieval parade, crowds flock to the grandstands around the jousting field to watch six local champions compete.
Food & drink
Briny, slick and luscious linguine studded with small clams, a simple lamb chop chargrilled to perfection and finished with a squeeze of lemon and a sprinkle of salt, deep fried courgette flowers wrapped around a melting mixture of ricotta and a sliver of anchovy, paper thin slices of pizza blistered in a wood furnace... It’s easy to see why in recent times, food and wine holidays have been one of the fastest growing types of holiday in Italy.
Eating in Italy is one of the very greatest pleasures of being there. It's hard to find a bad meal, though some tourist trap eateries on the edges of popular squares and attractions might manage to serve one, but even these are more likely to overcharge than overcook; because most Italians are passionate and proud about their cuisine, and rightly so. It may not have the finesse of fine French cooking perhaps, but it has a direct and delicious robustness to it.
Simplicity, not sophistication defines the style of cooking here, and in this particular Italian instance, it's very much about substance over style. It's a deliberate thing, designed to enhance and not overpower the ingredients. In general, a dish will feature just a few key ingredients, not a lengthy list. And while recipes vary from region to region - from village to village - in fact from house to house, because everyone's nonna has their own way of making a particular dish - they all require the best produce available, always seasonal, almost always as local as possible.
This is no new fad. The first (known) Italian food writer, Archestratus, wrote a poem about it in the 4th century. His verses celebrated using 'top quality and seasonal' ingredients, extolled the virtues of simplicity, of not masking flavours with seasonings. It was ever thus in Italy (except for that period of extreme gastronomy that was the Roman Empire) and so it is today, throughout this long land, from top to toe.
The north has a very different style of cooking from the south. Both are heavily influenced by geography of course, as are the regions in between. Valle d'Aosta, entirely surrounded by the Alps, relies as many mountainous regions do, on thick soups and cheese, the latter often as fondues. Smoky bacon, butter, cream, potatoes make up much of the diet - all the rib-sticking food required at altitude. Polenta, made with cornmeal, is a staple, sometimes topped with a stew made from game from the surrounding mountains and forests.
Many of these hearty culinary habits prevail in the mountainous parts of Piedmont too, bean soups simmered with a little pork rind for richness and flavour, polenta made more comforting by the addition of Toma, Fontina and Grana Padano cheeses and lashings of butter; all these are routinely also added to potato dumplings or gnocchi. Fondue here is made with Fontina and enriched with an egg yolk, and sometimes garnished with shavings of white truffle. White truffles - sometimes sniffed out at midnight by white dogs - are one of the region's most prized treasures, and in season lend many a simple dish a heady touch. Meat features heavily here - from the famed salamis which are just as likely to contain beef or goose as they are pork - to the robust Gran Bollito Misto Piemontese, a selection of boiled beef, veal, poultry and cotechino sausages. The plains of Piedmont produce copious amounts of carnaroli rice, which lends the requisite creaminess to risottos, so variations of this northern favourite abound here, topped as often as not with those prized white truffles.
Risotto is just as popular in Lombardia, where the Po River creates perfect growing conditions for rice. Risotto alla Milanese, decadent yet delicate, golden with saffron and unctuous with bone marrow, is the best known, and utterly delicious. The bone marrow and the butter used to enrich this risotto come from the cattle raised on the plains of Lombardia - beef and dairy products form a large part of the local diet. Almost every part of the animal is used - the local variation of bollitto misto includes offal, beef bones form the basis of zuppa alla pavese, a rich broth served over bread and poached eggs. Ossobuco is pretty much ubiquitous, veal shanks slow cooked in wine to a delectable softness, sprinkled with gremolata (lemon zest, garlic and fresh parsley) before being served. Locally produced Gorgonzola, Provolone and other excellent cheeses form the last course of many a meal in Lombardy, or provide a stuffing for pasta, which is not as prevalent here as polenta and rice.
Rice dominates in Venetian cooking too, and polenta is almost as popular. Risi i Bisi is standard fare in homes and restaurants, half soup half risotto, all rice, fresh peas and chunks of pancetta (Italian bacon). Risotto proper in Venice is often made with seafood - Risotto Nero, made with black squid ink is as distinctive in taste as it is in appearance. As you'd imagine, fish and seafood make up a substantial part of cuisine in this almost floating city, though guinea fowl and horse might be served with polenta. The famous Harry's Bar is said to be the source of the carpaccio now served throughout Italy - fresh raw beef sliced wafer thin, adorned with capers or peppercorns, and served with Parmesan. At the other end of the dining spectrum from the Harry's experience is the Venetian version of tapas, served in backstreet bars. These little bites, known as cicchetti (meaning 'have some fun') are generally consumed standing at crowded, convivial counters, with a glass or two of ombre or wine.
There's as much fun to be had along the side streets in Bologna, where the bars and cafes near the university serve up atmosphere with the snacks. The food in these student joints may be cheap but it's good, as the standards here are high. Bologna is a city where food is all-important - among its nicknames is La Grassa - the fat. It's the culinary hub of Emilia Romana, a region that produces some of the best known Italian classics - soft, silky, salty prosciutto di Parma, crumbly and slightly sweet Parmesan cheese, mellow and rich Balsamic vinegar. And Bologna has contributed just as much to the stable of Italian classics served in Italian restaurants the world over - lasagne, tortellini, mortadella sausage, and of course, something that became Spaghetti Bolognese elsewhere. It's never served as such in Bologna, where it is Tagliatelle Ragu - the rich ragu of beef, finely diced belly pork or chicken livers, red wine and herbs simmered for hours to concentrate the taste nicely.
It's also worth trying that other stalwart - Spaghetti Carbonara - in situ, in Rome, where they make it better than anyone anywhere, just eggs, parmesan, and guanciale (pigs cheek). They also make the simplest of all pasta dishes - cacio e pepe - coating the strands of spaghetti with nothing more than Pecorino Romano cheese and black pepper, properly made, it's delicious, more so for its purity and simplicity. Amatriciana is another Roman speciality, a pasta sauce made from tomato, pecorino and guanciale, often served with bucatini, a hollow version of spaghetti. Pasta is an enormous deal in Rome - there's even a museum in the city dedicated to the starchy stuff. Meat is almost as popular as pasta here and traditional meat dishes - including many offal specialities and pigs trotters - can still be found in the old trade and butcher shop area of Testaccio, now a hip quarter with numerous good restaurants. Some are bound to serve - as many restaurants across the city do - the traditional dish of coda alla vaccinara, or oxtail cooked 'in the way of butchers' - that originated here. The Jewish influence from earlier times lingers on too, for instance in carciofi alla guidia, literally 'Jewish-style artichokes', speedily deep fried so the leaves unfurl and the heart remains tender - it looks like a flower when finished and tastes wonderful.
If Rome is the place to eat pasta, Naples is the place to try pizza. It's where it was invented, and they have strict rules about how to make it - the dough has to be made the day before for optimum lightness, it can only be cooked in wood burning brick ovens, and the pizzaiolo (pizza maker) has to undertake at least two years of apprenticeship. The mozzarella may be the famed mozzarella di Bufala, made from water buffalo milk from animals in nearby Salerna, or regular mozzarella, but the tomatoes for the sauce need to be those grown in the volcanic ash of nearby Pompeii. The entire region of Campania benefits from this fertile soil, which produces intensely flavoured aubergines, figs and amazing Amalfi lemons, the latter going especially well with the seafood from the bay of Naples.
Sicily too has volcanic soil to thank for the abundance of lemons, oranges, almonds, aubergines, peppers and olives that enhance this island's cuisine, a blend of Italian, Spanish, Arab, North African and Greek influences. Needless to say fish, including sea bass, sea bream, cuttlefish and tuna, feature on many menus, often with a side of traditional sweet and sour caponata, an aubergine dish made with sweetened vinegar and capers.
Just across the water, almost within waving distance, back on the mainland, Calabria, like Sicily has a food culture that has been influenced to an extent by the Greeks and Arabs - seen clearly in the pitta-style flatbread popular here; and shares the same delicious seafood enjoyed on Sicily. Sardines, swordfish, shrimp, lobster, squid and delicious sea urchins are readily available. The hilly interior is better suited to goats, pigs and sheep than cattle, so cured sausages, pancetta and sheep's milk cheeses such as ricotta Calabrese are common. Flavours often pack a punch - nduja sausage is made from the throat meat of pigs and an ambitious amount of local peperoncino - it's as delicious as it is fiery, and soft enough to spread on bread.
If Calabria is the toe, then Puglia is the heel of Italy, and surrounded by the same abundance of seafood, including oysters and mussels. There is a rocky interior here too, ideal for sheep farming, so lamb is popular; but Puglia as a whole is a rich agricultural region, with an equally rich home cooking tradition based on local produce. Artichokes, fava beans, courgettes, and many more vegetables are grown, and the state produces 40% of Italy's olive oil. Durum wheat, the basis for pasta, grows well here, and in Puglia, the shape of choice is orecchiette, or little ears, still made by hand by many cooks on a daily basis. If you find one, pop into a rosticceria butchers, choose your cut of meat and have it grilled over charcoal or speed roasted in a wood-fire oven - there'll be a glass of wine on hand while you wait. There's lamb of course, but also steak from the cattle bred on the plains. It may not be well known as a culinary or tourist destination, but actually Puglia offers some of the best food to be had in Italy, all of it as fresh as it can be, very little processed, pretty much field to plate or sea to plate.
Tuscany on the other hand, is possibly one of the most talked about Italian regions, for its dreamy landscapes and outstanding art, but also for its food. And yet, most of the dishes here are rooted in cucina povera, or traditional peasant cooking. Now dishes such as ribollita are served in high-end restaurants, and raved over, despite its humble origins. Ribollita literally means 'reboiling' and this thick soup is the result of reheating soup from the day before, with the addition of stale bread. It tastes wonderful though, because, like so many dishes in Italy, the ingredients themselves may be simple but their quality is high. Cavolo Nero or Tuscan kale is always included, as are cannellini beans - Tuscans eat these, and borlotti beans, so often in so many dishes that they are often referred to by other Italians as 'mangia fagioli' or bean eaters. They eat just as much meat though, and the markets in Florence and elsewhere in the region are full of every part of every sort of livestock, with tripe an especial favourite in Florence itself. The beef here is outstanding, in particular the bistecca alla fiorentina, from local white Chainina cattle, thick T-bone steaks seared over coals and properly made, soft and tender and juicy and tasty beyond belief.
The food in neighbouring, landlocked Umbria is just at hearty, and revolves around the hearth. Wood fires are the preferred way of cooking everything, from the succulent spit roasted pigs or porchetta to tiny wild birds, although thankfully the latter is a declining trend and bird song is heard more than it was. The forests are home to cinghiale or wild boar, and these remain a hunter's and diner's favourite, served everywhere in the autumn months, in stews, or cured to make sausages and salamis, and often made into a dense ragu served with pasta, as likely as not thick and long umbricelli, or stringozzi, a square shaped long pasta typical of the region. The sausages are also served from time to time with the praised lentils from the high plains of Castelluccio, itself just a short distance from Norcia, considered to be the gastronomic heart of the heart of Italy. Norcia is where the famed black truffles come from, and the butchers here produce such good prosciutto and cured sausages that they give the name 'norcineria', a mark of quality, to butchers around the country.
Each region of Italy has its own speciality that may be served elsewhere in the country, but is considered to be at its finest where it originates, be it pesto (best in Liguria) or fine slices of speck, juniper-flavoured ham, served in Austrian influenced Trentino, or the sweet San Daniele del Friuli ham or smoked meat meatballs eaten in Friuli-Venezia Giula, which also has links with Austria-Hungary. However, one essential element of Italian cuisine that tastes as good wherever you are is gelato, or ice cream, a national favourite, eaten on every passeggiata (the social ritual of taking a stroll in the evening) in every town.
The distinctive shape of the Italian peninsula is surrounded on the west by the Tyrrhenian Sea and on the east by the Adriatic, and bordered to the north by France, Switzerland, Austria and Slovenia. Almost 40% of the peninsula is mountainous. The Apennines form its central 'backbone', and the Alps its northern boundary. Major mountains and ranges include the Matterhorn, Monte Rosa and Gran Paradiso in the western Alps, and Bernina, Stelvio and Dolomites along the eastern side. The highest peak in Italy is Mont Blanc, at 4,810 metres above sea level. One third of the territory of Abruzzo, stretching from the heart of the Appennines to the Adriatic in central Italy, is set aside as National Parks and nature reserves, and has been dubbed the 'Greenest Region in Europe.'
The north of the country has many moraine-dammed subalpine lakes, the largest of which is Garda at 370 sq km. Other significant lakes include Lake Maggiore (the northern part of which extends over the Swiss border), Como, Lugano and Umbria's Trasimeno. The Po, Italy's principal river, flows from the Alps on the western border, crossing the Lombard plain to the Adriatic.
Italy has several islands; the largest are Sicily (25,700 sq km) and Sardinia (24,100 sq km), followed by the relative minnow Elba (224 sq km). Corsica, though lying within the Italian geographical region, has been part of France since 1769. Most of the small islands and archipelagos in the south are volcanic, and active volcanoes include Etna on Sicily and Vesuvius near Naples, the only active volcano on mainland Europe.
Train, bus and ferry services are plentiful, efficient and cheap, and there are internal flights between all the major cities. Pricier high-speed trains connect Rome with Turin, Milan, Venice, Bologna, Florence, Naples and other cities, and can cut journey times by half. There are underground train systems in Rome, Milan, Naples and Turin. One of the delights of arriving in Venice is to take a swift but pricey water taxi from the airport into the city centre along the Grand Canal.
The dramatic Italian coastline attracts luxury yacht charters of the highest standard. Touring coastal Tuscany, Amalfi, Sardinia and Sicily by private boat is an alternative to staying in a luxury hotel, and many famous sights are within easy reach of the shore.
Multi-centre trips, with use of a hire car, are still the best way to visit Italy, however. A self-drive tour gives you the opportunity to choose your own route as well as make some discoveries for yourself.
There are also many opportunities for cultural or gastronomic walking or cycling tours in the region of your choice. Your Wexas Travel consultant can arrange any combination of internal travel to suit your tailor-made itinerary, depending on your preferences.
Humans have inhabited the Italian peninsula for around 200,000 years. Neolithic societies flourished in prehistoric Italy but had been wiped out by around 2000 BC by a group of Indo-European tribes known collectively as the Italic peoples. The Etruscan civilisation flourished from the 6th century BC in northern Lazio, Umbria and Tuscany. In succeeding centuries, Greek colonies were established on Sicily and in southern Italy, and began to influence Etruscan culture. Rome itself was dominated by the Etruscans until 509 BC, when the last king Tarquin the Proud was ousted and the Roman Republic was founded. When the Romans sacked the nearby city of Veii in 396 BC it triggered the collapse of the Etruscan confederation and the Etruscan people began to be assimilated.
Northern Italy was settled by the Gauls, who gradually expanded south during the 1st millennium BC. When they attempted to take Rome in 390 BC the Romans drove them into submission. In the 3rd century BC Rome came under threat from the Phoenician city-state of Carthage, but by the end of the Punic Wars, Rome had gained control of Sicily, Hispania and North Africa. When Julius Caesar came to power in 49 BC he dismantled the Roman Republic and established the Roman Empire, which would expand throughout the Mediterranean, through France, England and the Scottish borders.
The next two centuries saw unprecedented stability and prosperity, the Empire reaching its greatest extent during the reign of Trajan (98-117 AD). When the Christians rose to power in the 4th century, a system of dual rule was developed in the Latin West and Greek East.
When the Western Empire finally collapsed in 476 AD, barbarian chiefs divided the Italian peninsula among themselves and Italy was plunged into the Dark Ages. Only parts of southern Italy, which were under Byzantine control, and what would become the Papal States of Rome and the surrounding region, survived as independent entities.
Sicily remained in Byzantine hands until the late 8th century, when it was conquered by the Arabs. They in turn were overcome in 1092 by the Normans, who created the Kingdoms of Sicily and Naples (which would later become the 'Kingdom of the Two Sicilies').
Northern Italy became a collection of independent city-states and kingdoms and the maritime republics of Genoa, Venice, Pisa and Amalfi competed for control of the seas and lucrative trade routes with the Far East. From the 13th century onwards, Florence became the main cultural hub: home to poets and writers including Dante Alighieri, Petrarch and Boccaccio, whose works began to standardise the Italian language. The Medici dynasty were powerful patrons of the arts, and Italy became the birthplace of the Renaissance with the emergence of Leonardo da Vinci, Tiziano, Raphael, Michelangelo and many others.
By the end of the 15th century, the peninsula suffered a series of invasions from the French and the Spanish, and the north became dominated by the Austrians. Spanish and Portuguese expansion into the New World further damaged the declining economies of Italy's city-states, and post-Renaissance Italy became dominated by foreign powers.
In the wake of the French revolution of 1789, independence movements were sparked throughout the peninsula. The advent of Napoleon Bonaparte in 1796-7 and the adoption of the Napoleonic Code established the groundwork for Giuseppe Garibaldi's Risorgimento ('Resurgence'), the political and social process that would unify the different states of the Italian peninsula into a single nation.
The Kingdom of Italy was finally proclaimed on 17 March 1861. Turin was initially chosen as the capital, replaced by Florence in 1865. Finally, on 20 September 1870, shortly after France retreated during the Franco-Prussian War, Rome was taken by Italian troops and established as the capital.
Initially neutral in World War I, Italy's interventionist faction soon forced a secret pact between Italy, France and Great Britain by which Italy would gain the provinces of Trentino, Istria and Dalmatia if it joined the war against the Central Powers. In three years of bloody fighting, more than a million Italian soldiers lost their lives, and though the war was won, some of the agreed treaty's provisions were disregarded and Italy was granted only part of the territories it claimed.
In October 1922, the National Fascist Party attempted a coup with its 'March on Rome', which resulted in King Victor Emmanuel III forming an alliance with Mussolini. A pact with Germany followed, and Italy joined World War II in 1940 as France collapsed under the German Blitzkrieg and occupation. After disastrous defeats on the Greek and Egyptian fronts, Italy was invaded by the Allies in June 1943, leading to the arrest, flight, recapture and death of Mussolini, and the collapse of the fascist regime.
In 1946, King Umberto II was forced to abdicate and Italy became a republic. In the 1950s, Italy became a member of NATO and the Marshall Plan helped revive the Italian economy. In 1957 Italy became a founding member of the EEC, and for the next decade experienced rapid economic and industrial growth and a rise in tourism that was joyfully and expansively expressed in films such as Roman Holiday and La Dolce Vita.
But from the late 60s to the late 1980s, the country experienced an economic crisis and political instability characterised by massive government debt and extensive corruption. In the early 1990s the mani pulite ('clean hands') judicial investigation exposed corruption at the highest levels of politics and big business. Several former prime ministers and thousands of businessmen and politicians were implicated, but hopes of radical reform were dashed in a new political landscape dominated by multi-millionaire tycoon and serial prime minister Silvio Berlusconi, who clung and returned to power despite continuous scandals and corruption claims.
Italy is the fourth largest European economy but became one of the first European victims of the global financial crisis of 2008. By mid-2012, Italy had a towering public debt of 123% of GDP - the second-highest level in the eurozone after Greece.
Despite its gradual and continued dilution of power on the international stage over the last 1,500 years or so, the country’s art, architecture and fashion are a constant reminder to any holidaymaker that theirs has often been the last word on matters of design and material beauty.
Italy's big cities are packed with glitzy boutiques and large shopping malls, as well as tiny art galleries, specialist food stores and antique dealers.
Milan is the fashion and design capital. The major boutiques can all be found in a square known as the Quadrilatero d'Oro ('rectangle of gold'), comprising Via della Spiga, Via Manzoni, Via Sant'Andrea and Via Montenapoleone. Another fantasy shopping spot is the elegant glass-roofed Galleria Vittorio Emanuele near the Duomo. Virtually every street in central Milan boasts interesting clothing stores. If you're determined to snag a relative bargain (up to 70% off a high ticket price), time your trip for the January or July sales, or size up the many central and out-of-town outlet stores.
Rome's Via dei Condotti and Florence's Via de' Tornabuoni are other high-fashion shopping streets, and both cities have many chic boutiques scattered around the centre.
Vicenza and Valenza are Italy's jewellery capitals, but Milan, Rome, Naples, Florence and Venice also have a dizzying array of gem and silverware shops. Many Italian cities have great antique furniture stores, while Milan again leads the way in cutting-edge contemporary design.
You can visit glass factories and studios on the island of Murano, 1.5 km from the centre of Venice, while their products abound throughout the Veneto region and beyond. Art and craft shops can be found all over Italy, with Florence, Rome and Venice offering the greatest variety.
A service charge is normally included in restaurant bills, and tipping is not expected unless you really want to show appreciation for exceptional service. Taxi drivers expect you to round up the fare, while hotel porters helping with heavy luggage appreciate a euro or two for their trouble.
Where to eat
There are two things that aren't too common in Italy - street food and restaurants serving foreign food. Both exist, carts selling tripe and veal cheeks can still be found, just about, on the streets of Naples, in Liguria farinata or chickpea pancakes are sold; some mobile stands will serve slices of porchetta stuffed into rolls. And the bigger cities do have some international restaurants, there are Chinese restaurants here and there, and immigration is having an effect too, so you may find an Ethiopian restaurant in Milan or Naples. But this is a country where people are devoted to the food of their region, so even a Sicilian restaurant on the mainland is a novelty.
However, there is no shortage of places to eat, and to eat well, as food is considered to be a pleasurable part of life and eating out provides a chance to socialise, something Italians love as much as they love food. You can guarantee that eating out will be a highlight of any holiday to Italy.
There are any number of casual options, from the paninoteca serving sandwiches, to bar/cafés where sputini (snacks) are served, the ubiquitous pizzerias, a rostecceria for a fast-food fix, though here this will be roasted meat or perhaps small somethings such as arancini (fried rice balls stuffed with ragu or mozzarella) to take away, and of course gelaterias everywhere, with a wide choice of delicious ice-cream flavours to choose from.
For more substantial meals, a family run osteria is almost always a treat. Originally places for men to have a drink at the end of the day, these developed to serve food, and now are great places to visit - the mood is convivial, the menus are often verbal, short and concentrate on simple local dishes. Trattorias are similar in some ways, but a step up, with slightly more extensive menus and often very good food indeed.
Ristoranti run the range from utilitarian to upscale, but a restaurant's décor doesn't directly correlate to the food it serves - there are many basic looking options dishing up wonderful food. For a taste of home cooking in the countryside - and for the freshest produce imaginable - try an agriturismo, a working farm offering accommodation and supper, or just supper in some instances.